What You Should Know About Hurricanes

A hurricane is a tropical storm with strong winds, heavy rains, and very high tides. The most severe weather is around the eye of the storm, which can be up to thirty miles wide. Hurricanes move slowly and cover areas as wide as four hundred miles. A hurricane can last more than two weeks and can travel up the entire length of the eastern coast. The hurricane season lasts from June 1 to November 30 with August and September being the peak months. In the United States, approximately five hurricanes make landfall every five years, two of which are major storms. Hurricanes may spawn tornadoes and floods. Unlike tornadoes, whose damage is more concentrated, hurricanes affect entire communities, often with extensive damage. Even though a hurricane is restricted in time and space, there may be secondary losses of food, water, utilities, and health care facilities. Learn more hurricane facts at the National Weather Service website


Impact on Children and Families

Hurricane warnings result in heightened anxiety and emotional distress, as people try to figure out when and where the hurricane will hit. Often the fear is contagious, as the community prepares for the storm and people shop frantically for food, water, and emergency supplies, board up their homes, pack up and evacuate, or plan how to meet up with family members in a safe place after the storm.

Evacuation from home and relocation away from family and friends can disturb family support and social networks. Families frequently suffer financial hardships because adults lose their jobs or have to rebuild homes and businesses. Schools and business may close for extensive periods. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, displaced 500,000. In the hardest-hit area of Louisiana, employment declined 35% in the immediate aftermath of the storm and flooding.

A hurricane threatens our everyday feelings of safety. Children may see their usually confident parents and caregivers become anxious and fearful. They may lose their homes and cherished pets, memorabilia, and toys. They may see collapsed or damaged buildings—including their schools or familiar community landmarks. They may experience the horror of seeing severely injured people or dead bodies.

Individuals with pre-existing emotional and behavioral problems may get worse if their support systems fail, they run out of medications, and/or their routine destabilizes. Others may develop chronic emotional and behavioral problems having to deal with such stresses as the loss of community infrastructure, home or employment, or family and friends. In addition, emotional and physical exhaustion may impact individuals or families' ability to recover.

Children and adults frequently have traumatic reminders, during which they suddenly reexperience all the emotions, fears, thoughts, and perceptions they experienced at the time of the hurricane. Typical traumatic reminders include hurricane warnings, the sudden onset of dark clouds, bolts of lightning, heavy rains, and strong winds, as well as the activities associated with preparing for a hurricane.

Common emotional reactions of children and families exposed to a hurricane include:

  • Feelings of insecurity, unfairness, anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, despair, worries about the future
  • Fear that another hurricane will hit them again
  • Believing myths or folklore as to the cause of the hurricane
  • Disruptive behaviors, irritability, temper tantrums, agitation, hyperactivity
  • Clinging/dependent behaviors; avoiding activities or situations
  • Physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, loss of appetite, nightmares, sleep problems
  • Increased concerns regarding the safety of family members, friends, and loved ones
  • School-based problems with decreased motivation and school performance


Adolescents may differ from younger children in how they respond to a hurricane or other natural disaster. Some believe they will not live long and may exhibit:
  • Socially withdrawn, angry, irritable
  • Risky behavior
  • Conflict with authority


Additional Information

To see other helpful material on hurricanes, click on the Readiness, Response, and Recovery tabs at the top of the page.


Readiness: Before a Hurricane

Ordinarily, hurricanes are tracked for weeks before reaching land. A hurricane watch implies a storm within 24-36 hours of landfall and a hurricane warning occurs within 24 hours of landfall. Fortunately, hurricanes are predictable and are trackable with early warnings, so that families often have a chance to prepare and evacuate if necessary. The family should have designated supplies ready, including their child's favorite toys and provisions for rapid evacuation. Practicing evacuations as a family will help make sure that you all are prepared in the event of a hurricane.
  • Give children factual information about hurricanes in simple terms.
  • Develop a Family Preparedness Plan (PDF) so that all family members will know what to do in case of a hurricane or other disaster. [Also available in Armenian, Korean, Russian, Spanish  , and Vietnamese.]
  • Have a plan for your pets. Most emergency shelters cannot take in animals.
  • Make and carry a Family Preparedness Wallet Card (PDF). [Also available in Armenian, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.]
  • Create a Family Evacuation Plan including how and where you will meet up later and an out-of-state telephone contact.
  • Practice your Family Evacuation Plan, so that if instructed to do so, you can evacuate quickly and safely.
  • Assemble an Emergency Supply Kit in a large backpack, duffel bag, or easy-to-carry covered trash container.
  • Get information about reinforcing your home and follow through on doing the work needed.



NCTSN Resources

Response: During a Hurricane

  • Use flashlights—not candles—to inspect your home for damage, in case there are broken gas lines.
  • Watch for dangerous debris (broken glass, nails), standing water, and fallen power lines.
  • Shield children from viewing severe injuries and damage as much as possible.
  • Give children a small snack or juice to help reassure them that their needs will be met.
  • Let children help in age-appropriate ways to increase their sense of control.
  • Do not underestimate or dismiss the loss that children feel for pets or special toys.
  • Keep pets on leashes or in crates/cages to prevent them from running away or causing injury.


Recovery: After a Hurricane

Most families will recover over time, particularly with the support of family, friends, and organizations. The length of recovery will depend in part upon how frightening the hurricane was, whether evacuation from home was necessary, and the extent of the damage and loss. Some families will be able to return to their normal routines rather quickly, while others will have to contend with repairing damage to their home and possessions, finding medical care, and facing financial hardship. Some families will have lost a loved one or a pet. Others will need to deal with school closings or changes in school schedules.

Children's functioning and recovery will be influenced by how their parents and caregivers cope during and after the hurricane. Children often turn to adults for information, comfort, and help. Children do best when parents and teachers remain (or at least appear) calm, answer children's questions honestly, and respond as best they can to requests.

 Page Contents:

NCTSN Resources

Simple Activities for Children and Adolescents 

 Parent Guidelines for Helping Children After a Hurricane  (PDF)

     >En Español [Guia para los padres para ayudar a los niños despues de un huracan] (PDF)

Psychological First Aid 
     >En Español [Primeros Auxilios Psicológicos - Guía de Operaciones Prácticas]

Psychological First Aid Field Operations Guide for Community Religious Professionals

Teacher Guidelines for Helping Students after a Hurricane (PDF)

Trinka and Sam: The Rainy Windy Day (PDF) 
     >En Español [Trinka y Juan en un día de mucho viento y lluvia

The NCTSN has gathered more tools and links to help children and families in the aftermath of hurricanes.

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Children's Reactions

Children will react differently to a hurricane and its aftermath depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Some will withdraw, while others will have angry outbursts. Still others will become agitated or irritable. Parents should be sensitive to each child's coping style. The following are typical reactions children exhibit following a hurricane or other natural disaster:

  • Fear and worry about their safety and the safety of others, including pets
  • Fear of separation from family members
  • Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Worry that another hurricane will come
  • Increase in activity level
  • Trouble concentrating or paying attention
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Angry outbursts or tantrums
  • Aggression toward parents, siblings, or friends
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Change in school performance
  • Long-lasting focus on the hurricane, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
  • Increased sensitivity to sounds of thunder, wind, rain, or things crashing
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, even playing with friends
  • Returning to earlier behaviors, such as baby talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
  • Increase in teens' risky behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities


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What Parents Can Do to Help Their Children

Parents should spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries. Although it will be hard finding time, parents can use regular family mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. Issues may come up more than once and parents should remain patient and open to answering questions and clarifying the situation. They should let children know, without overwhelming them with information, what is happening in the family, with their school, and in the community. Parents should answer questions briefly and honestly and ask their children for their opinions and ideas. To help younger children feel safe and calm after talking about the hurricane, parents might read a favorite story or have a relaxing family activity.

To help children's recovery, parents should:

  • Be a role model. Try to remain calm so that you can teach your child how to handle stressful situations.
  • Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the hurricane or the damage. Children listen to adults' conversations and may misinterpret what they hear, becoming unnecessarily frightened.
  • Limit media exposure. Protect your child from too many images and descriptions of the hurricane, including those on television, on the Internet, on radio, and in the newspaper.
  • Reassure children that they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even after the hurricane passes.
  • Spend extra time with your children, playing games outside, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them. The coloring book Trinka and Sam: The Rainy Windy Day (PDF) , developed by the NCTSN's Early Trauma Treatment Network, can help children begin to talk about the feelings and worries they have after a hurricane.
  • Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able.
  • Calm worries about their friends' safety. Even though phones may not be working, reassure your children that their friends' parents are taking care of them, just the way you are taking care of your children.
  • Tell children about community recovery. Reassure them that the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas. Tell them that the town or city will be removing debris and helping families find housing.
  • Take care of your children's health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, and healthy food and water. Give them both quiet and physical activities.
  • Maintain regular daily life. In the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, have regular mealtimes and bedtimes.
  • Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual.
  • Encourage children to help. Children cope better and recover sooner when they help others. Give them small cleanup tasks or other ways to contribute. Afterward, provide activities unrelated to the hurricane, such as playing cards or reading.
  • Be extra patient as your children return to school. They may be more distracted and need extra help with homework for a while.
  • Give support at bedtime. Children may be more anxious when separating from parents. Spend a little more time than usual talking, cuddling, or reading. Start the bedtime routine earlier so children get the sleep they need. If younger children need to sleep with you, let them know it is a temporary plan, and that soon they will go back to sleeping in their own beds.
  • Help with boredom. The hurricane may have disrupted the family's daily activities (watching television, playing on the computer, and having friends over) or caused the suspension of extracurricular activities (sports, youth groups, dances, or classes). Help children think of alternative activities, such as board games, card games, and arts and crafts. Try to find community programs (at the library, a park program, or a local YMCA) with child-friendly activities.
  • Keep things hopeful. Even in the most difficult situation, your positive outlook on the future will help your children see good things in the world around them, helping them through challenging times.
  • Seek professional help if your child still has difficulties more than six weeks after the hurricane.


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Therapy for Children

If children are still having the reactions described above more than six weeks after the hurricane, parents should consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. If the clinician recommends counseling, keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has the strongest evidence for helping children recover from a disaster. Therapy for children should typically include:

  • Family involvement
  • Awareness of the child's developmental level and cultural/religious differences
  • Assessment of preexisting mental health problems, including prior traumas and loss
  • Explanation and normalization of the child's psychological reactions to the hurricane
  • Relaxation exercises and other skills to manage reactions to reminders of the hurricane
  • Problem-solving and anger-management skills as needed
  • Helping to maintain normal developmental progression
  • Increasing positive activities and rebuilding social connections

[NOTE for health and mental health clinicians: To guide your evaluations of children use the Hurricane Assessment and Referral Tool for Children and Adolescents (PDF).]


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What Parents Can Do to Help Themselves

Parents have a tendency to neglect their own needs during a crisis. To take good care of their children, parents must take good care of themselves. Here are some things for parents to keep in mind:

  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Support each other. Parents and caregivers should take time to talk together and find ways to meet each other's needs.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful posthurricane period.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Their Students

  • In a school with many students affected by a hurricane, plan shorter lessons, go at a slower pace, give less homework than usual, and expect a decline in performance for a short time.
  • Identify students who had direct experience with the hurricane, particularly those who suffered losses or had to evacuate, as they are at increased risk for distress.
  • Monitor conversations you and your colleagues have about the hurricane, as you may share perceptions, feelings, and memories in ways that make children feel more anxious.
  • Encourage distressed students to meet with the school counselors.
  • Stay in touch with your students' parents and/or caregivers about academic performance and behavior.
  • Suggest that your school review its crisis and emergency plans in order to better respond to future events.
  • For those schools heavily affected by a hurricane, consider a postdisaster mental health recovery program for students and school personnel. The NCTSN provides information on these programs and other material for educators in the Resources for School Personnel section of this website.


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What Teachers Can Do to Help Themselves

Teachers play an important role in helping their students recover. Simply returning to school promotes the welfare of children and families. Teachers should not neglect themselves as they work with children, adolescents, and families. Here are some self-care suggestions for teachers:

  • Take care of yourself emotionally. You and your family may have had a stressful experience and suffered losses like those of your students. To be able to support them, you must have support yourself.
  • Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and get proper medical care.
  • Communicate with others. Make sure that you and your fellow teachers schedule ongoing times to talk together and give each other support. Teachers might consider covering for each other, so that they can address important personal/family issues that arise.
  • Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo cleanup activities. To reduce injury, avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods.
  • Put off major decisions. Avoid making any life-altering decisions during this stressful, posthurricane period.
  • Take care of your own family. Even though you may be very committed to your students, you also need to spend time with and meet the needs of your own family members or friends.
  • If you have many hurricane-related responsibilities, talk with your school administrators about temporarily altering your work schedule.


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